Title: The Blackface Minstrel Show in Mass Media: 20th Century Performances on Radio, Records, Film and Television
Author: Tim Brooks
Formats: Book (softcover, 290 pages), Kindle Ed.
Release date: November 15, 2019
Tim Brooks, author of the award winning tome Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919 (2004), draws upon his decades of experience as a media researcher and recorded sound historian for his latest book, The Blackface Minstrel Show in Mass Media. Tracing the shift from staged minstrel performances in the 19th century to the silver screen, airwaves and turntables of the 20th century, Brooks explores the second fifty-plus years of this “strange American phenomenon.”
Anyone following the news over the past year has witnessed multiple incidents that support Brooks’ main thesis: minstrelsy did not “die out” in the 1880s-1890s but evolved and even thrived in the first half of the 20th century to the extent that mass media “validated blackface as an acceptable form of entertainment.” Scholar Rhae Lynn Barnes recently echoed this viewpoint. When two Virginia politicians were outed for “blacking up” during their college years, her response in a Washington Post column described the “monstrous, mass-commercialized empire of amateur blackface minstrelsy” performance that perpetuated the practice. She went on to explain how deeply the history of blackface has been buried, even though today “it’s hard to look anywhere without seeing its vestiges.” While Barnes was primarily referencing the history of amateur blackface minstrelsy performance, Brooks digs deep into the largely untold story of minstrelsy in mass media.
In the opening chapter, Brooks explores the origins of blackface minstrelsy with a particular focus on the most popular songs of 19th century minstrel shows and the proliferation of black minstrel troupes following the Civil War. Citing many of the major troupes, both black and white (also included in an appendix), he then illustrates how minstrelsy (and these minstrel songs) moved seamlessly into the mass media in the 1890s on records and films. Each of the following chapters focuses on the dissemination of minstrel themed programs within a different category of mass media.
One of the primary strengths of The Blackface Minstrel Show is the exploration of the role of early sound recordings, which Brooks’ states “have been virtually ignored by most print-oriented scholars in studies of minstrelsy.” By elevating their importance as primary sources, sound recordings can provide aural documentation that may ultimately lead “to a deeper understanding of what a minstrel show was and why, for better or worse, the genre had such appeal.” As Brooks states in the preface, “The purpose of this book is not to endorse the minstrel show but to understand it—and why it lasted so long.” His encyclopedic knowledge of early sound recordings, combined with aural descriptions derived from his own collection of rarities, makes for fascinating reading.
Audio recreations of minstrel shows were a very popular genre from the mid-1890s to mid-1910s, particularly the opening portion of the shows known as “first parts,” featuring spoken sections by interlocutors, popular songs, instrumental interludes, and “negro humor,” which of course most often referred to jokes told by whites imitating blacks. These “first part” recordings are the most authentic representations of late 19th century minstrelsy performance practice, especially the earlier cylinders made by performers who actually toured on the minstrel circuit. Conversely, later recordings often featured studio musicians who rendered “historic recreations.” Also captured on a few rare cylinders are the sounds of actual cakewalk competitions that were frequently included as part of minstrel shows. Not surprisingly, few black minstrel stars of this era were recorded (George W. Johnson and the Ancient City Quartet were among the exceptions), but they begin to make an appearance on 78-rpm discs in the 1920s.*
Though some of these early recordings seem a bit more sympathetic to the plight of those trapped in the Jim Crow system, Brooks unequivocally states “there is no question that the minstrel show continued to present a demeaning picture of African Americans.” As the 1920s progressed, the content of minstrel recordings shifted more towards the glorification of the Old South, and by the 1950s and 1960s became slick shows released for the express purpose of providing a template for the production of amateur minstrel shows that were still proliferating in schools as well as community and political organizations. An appendix provides an extensive discography of the minstrel recordings discussed in this chapter, from cylinders through the LP era.
In Chapter 3, Brooks moves on to radio programs, noting that minstrelsy was one of the first program genres to make its way into consumer radio programming in the 1920s. Most will be familiar with radio series such as “Amos and Andy,” performed by whites portraying black characters, but Brooks also explores the work of lesser known figures such as Dailey Paskman of WGBS in New York who assembled a minstrel troupe exclusively for broadcasts. As Brooks points out, early radio variety shows were greatly influenced by the minstrel show format, and though one could not “see” the performers at home, in public appearances many were still in blackface. Though early radio transcription discs are exceedingly rare, Brooks was able to acquire and study 1930s-era recordings of the blackface comedy duo “Pick and Pat,” noting that while jokes were rarely about race, the blackface “endmen” still affected what at the time was referred to as “darky” dialect. “Pick and Pat” remained popular into the 1940s at a time when minstrelsy often crept into major network programs. For example, in 1948 The National Minstrel Show was announced as the title for a new black entertainment series to be hosted by bandleader Lucky Millinder. Following protests by led by Millinder, black newspapers and the NAACP, the program title was changed to Swingtime at the Savoy. This story almost has a happy ending, except the show was cancelled after five weeks. Reviews quoted in the book lead to an obvious conclusion: once the show was stripped of its link to minstrelsy, sponsors and critics deemed it less likely to appeal to a mainstream audience.
The final chapters of the book cover “The Minstrel Show in Motion Pictures” and “The Minstrel Show on Television,” which will be more familiar territory to most readers. Beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the Civil Rights Movement, African American activists worked tirelessly to expunge all traces of minstrelsy and blackface from the silver screen, though the book cites a few famous instances of its reccurrence in the 1970s and 1980s. Lest one conclude this was finally the end of minstrelsy, a search of newspapers for the year 1990 revealed announcements for several minstrel shows staged by community organizations, and a more recent example turned up in Vermont.
In his conclusion Brooks states, “For many years during the 20th century, American media, as well as social and political leaders, validated blackface minstrelsy as an acceptable form of entertainment . . .it was seen and heard everywhere.” Now we can fully appreciate what “seen and heard everywhere” truly means.
On a final note, I will mention that Brooks presents the evidence but in general does not attempt a deep analysis of the damaging repercussions of minstrelsy. In his recently published article, “Racial Representation in Popular Songs and Recordings of 1901” (ARSC Journal vol. 50, no. 2, Fall 2019), he invited African American historian Bill Doggett to provide a response, which focused on the “culture of racialized mockery” represented in commercial recordings. Doggett concluded, “These recorded humorous depictions of supposed inferiority, now mass produced, did nothing to promote social equality or racial progress…Rather, these songs and recordings all concretize an ideology that assumed the inferiority of black Americans as a societal group…Words and subliminal messaging matter, and have the power to define outcomes.”
*In the April 2020 issue of Black Grooves, we’ll feature the forthcoming 2-CD set from Archeophone Records, At the Minstrel Show: Minstrel Routines from the Studio, 1894-1926, with liner notes by Tim Brooks.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss